Drunken and drugged driving arrests climbed last year in Ohio, hitting the highest total in five years.

It was the second consecutive year that arrests for operating a vehicle under the influence, commonly known as OVI, rose in the state. It's unclear why the number has increased, although authorities point to the opioid epidemic as the leading theory.

"It's probably a combination of the availability of narcotics, sadly, and alcohol," Summit County Sheriff Steve Barry said.

The Ohio Supreme Court reported that there were 63,669 new OVI cases filed in mayors', municipal and county courts statewide last year, up 4.3 percent from the previous year. Ohio had seen OVI cases fall since the 2000s, when they totaled more than 70,000 each year. The number hit 77,565 in 2006.

The recent OVI uptick coincides with the country's opioid epidemic.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources declared a public health emergency last year, with an estimated 11.4 million people nationwide misusing prescription opioids. The 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated that 28.6 million people age 12 or older — or one in 10 Americans — used an illicit drug within the past 30 days. And the Interact for Health, a nonprofit foundation in Cincinnati, reported earlier this year that a third of Ohio adults have been prescribed a pain reliever by a medical professional over the last five years.

The question is how many of those people are driving while high. Authorities believe many are.

Better training

One of the other reasons that authorities suspect OVI arrests have risen is because law enforcement training has improved to spot drugged driving. The state has more than 200 drug recognition officers trained to recognize signs of drug abuse.

"We’ve gotten better at detecting the drug-impaired drivers," Ohio State Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. Robert Sellers said.

Summit County Deputy Dan Cuckler, who oversees the Summit County OVI Task Force and is a trained drug recognition officer, has been in law enforcement for two decades. Before he was trained to spot the telltale signs of various drugs, he said, he likely let some drugged drivers go after pulling them over, unaware that they were under the influence.

"Marijuana is the easiest [to detect]," he said while overseeing an OVI checkpoint this month on East Turkeyfoot Road in Green. "They'll roll the window down and it will hit you in the face."

Other drug use is more tricky to spot. But trained officers can determine whether someone is high on depressants, stimulants, hallucinogens, painkillers, sedatives and inhalants.

Each type of drug provides multiple signs. For example, painkillers will constrict the pupils. Inhalants will induce bloodshot, watery eyes. And marijuana will add eyelid tremors.

Sellers offered up another potential explanation — manpower. The Ohio State Highway Patrol and many other law enforcement agencies cut employees during the Great Recession. While staffing may not be back to where it was, there are more officers and troopers on patrol than there were several years ago, he and other officials said.

Alcohol rules

With all the discussion about opioids, people shouldn't forget that alcohol remains the most significant problem, said Jerry Craig, executive director of the Summit County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services agency in Akron.

"Alcohol has never gone away," he said. "Alcohol continues to be a ribbon that runs through all of this."

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health noted that 136.7 million Americans 12 or older drank alcohol in 2016, including 65.3 million who reported binging on alcohol in the past month and 16.3 million who reported heavy alcohol use in the past month.

State lawmakers did away with the 12 percent limit on alcohol in beer in 2016, but officials said they have seen no connection between higher alcohol craft beers being available and OVI arrests. Craig noted that people seeking to get drunk aren't reaching for craft beer "because it’s an expensive way to get loaded."

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Ohio did not respond to several requests for comment about the increase.

Who's impaired?

So who is driving impaired? Men, mostly.

The Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles noted that more than 72 percent of the 36,438 people convicted of OVI in Ohio last year were men. A third of them were between the ages of 21 and 30, while another 26.5 percent were between 31 and 40 years old.

The youngest offenders were 16 years old, while 67 of them were over the age of 76.

More than 1.3 million people have an OVI conviction from Ohio on their driving record, according to the Ohio BMV. More than 1,800 people have been convicted more than 10 times.

Three people have been convicted 20 times.

Not every OVI case leads to an OVI conviction, which explains the disparity between arrests and conviction statistics. OVI convictions have declined in many counties over the last five years, including Summit.

The Ohio State Highway Patrol, which has written an average of 25,232 OVI citations each year over the last five years, said impaired driving remains a serious problem in the state, with 36 percent of fatal crashes involving drugs or alcohol.

With the holiday season here — Christmas and New Year's Eve are among the most popular times of the year for drinking — law enforcement officials said they will be looking out for impaired drivers.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is running its nationwide "Drive Sober" campaign from Dec. 14 to Dec. 31. For the first time, it is including drugged driving with its "If You Feel Different, You Drive Different" catchphrase.

The agency noted that Ohio ranked fifth nationwide last year for the highest number of alcohol-related crashes in December.

Cuckler said authorities, especially at OVI checkpoints, are seeing more people under the influence opting for rides with Uber and Lyft.

"Which I think is fantastic," he said. "That is the ultimate goal — not to have anybody out drinking and driving."

 

Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or rarmon@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @armonrickABJ.